The Case for Holistic Admissions in Graduate Education. Plus, a Real-World Case Study

There is no argument that creating well-rounded and diverse learning environments prepare students to enter the real world in a variety of professions. But how can higher education institutions, especially in graduate studies, achieve this goal while tackling so many other priorities?

It all begins with framing the admissions process. When enrollment leaders intentionally focus on employing holistic admissions practices at the beginning of the student recruitment cycle, they ensure a foundation is built for diverse learning experiences and a diverse class mix.

What Is Holistic Admissions?

In graduate education, in particular, it marks a significant shift from traditional admissions criteria, offering a more comprehensive view of an applicant’s potential. This method evaluates candidates beyond the confines of test scores and GPA, considering a myriad of factors like personal experiences, extracurricular involvement, leadership qualities, and diverse perspectives.

In this article, let’s explore the philosophy behind holistic admissions in graduate education, how to identify and address barriers to applying, and explore a real-world example of its implementation.

Why Incorporate Holistic Evaluation in Graduate Admissions

Holistic evaluation in graduate admissions is pivotal for two key reasons: it broadens opportunities for qualified candidates from non-traditional backgrounds and enhances the diversity and richness of the graduate student community, benefiting students, faculty, and the university as a whole.

Firstly, by adopting a holistic admissions approach, graduate programs open doors to a wider range of capable individuals. Traditional metrics like test scores or GPAs don’t always capture a candidate’s full potential. Holistic evaluation considers varied experiences and achievements, ensuring that candidates who may excel in graduate studies, despite non-traditional academic journeys, are not overlooked. This approach acknowledges that capability and potential for academic success extend beyond conventional benchmarks.

Additionally, by creating pathways for more diverse cohorts, institutions also graduate professionals equipped to provide culturally competent service. In health care, patients have reported feeling more respected, understood, and able to discuss health concerns more openly with physicians of a similar demographic background. Shared identity can facilitate better doctor-patient communication.

Secondly, a diverse graduate student body, which holistic admissions fosters, is a tremendous asset. Diversity in backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences enriches the learning environment. It leads to more robust discussions, innovative problem-solving, and a deeper understanding of complex subjects.

This diversity benefits not just the students, who gain from exposure to a broader range of perspectives, but also the faculty and the entire university community. A more varied student body prepares all students for a global and diverse workforce, fostering an academic environment that mirrors the multifaceted nature of the world outside academia.

How to Identify and Address Barriers to Applying

Even highly qualified underrepresented students face unique barriers to accessing graduate programs. Proactively identifying and addressing those barriers is key to increasing diversity. Common obstacles include:

  • Cost and access to test prep for standardized exams required for admission.
  • Lack of transparency around eligibility, admissions processes, and funding availability.
  • Insufficient advising resources and mentorship on graduate pathways.
  • Burdensome application components that do not consider differing opportunities among applicants.
  • Time needed to complete the degree.

Strategies to dismantle barriers include:

  • Provide free or low-cost prep programming for required standardized tests or consider eliminating standardized test requirements.
  • Clearly communicate admissions processes, timing, eligibility and funding on your website.
  • Host info sessions focused on admissions requirements. Feature current underrepresented students.
  • Simplify applications, limit fees, and offer tiered fee waivers.
  • Evaluate eligibility criteria that disproportionately exclude underrepresented applicants.
  • Establish a preparatory bootcamp or personalized mentorship to help students submit competitive applications.
  • Accelerate the timeline for completed degree requirements.

The path to graduate study contains obstacles, seen and unseen. Reduce barriers through transparency, advising, and by reevaluating the entanglement of biases in traditional admissions norms. Meet talented students where they are and empower their access.

Case Study: Holistic Admissions at Augustana University

Augustana University recently launched an innovative Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program with holistic evaluation as a key component.

Compared to the average US DPT program, Augustana’s first cohort, which launched in June of 2023, identified as 45% minority students versus the national average of 27% based on data from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

Specifically, Augustana enrolled approximately 11% more African American students and 6% more multi-racial students compared to other DPT programs. Beyond racial diversity, Augustana’s cohort also reflects balance across gender, age groups, geographic locations and more.

Overcoming Barriers

Augustana identified several common barriers that can often exclude qualified candidates from underrepresented backgrounds and proactively addressed these issues:

  • Standardized Tests: By not requiring GRE scores, Augustana removed unnecessary testing barriers and associated prep obstacles.
  • Timing/Logistics: Augustana realized their original admissions and start timing posed challenges, so they adjusted key dates to improve accessibility.
  • Admissions Requirements: Augustana identified admissions criteria that excluded otherwise qualified candidates capable of succeeding and meeting the challenges of the program.

Intentional Strategies

Augustana attributes the successful enrollment of their diverse inaugural cohort to intentional strategies:

  • Holistic Evaluation: Admissions decisions relied on a wide range of application components beyond academics to understand applicants’ qualifications and context more fully, including life experiences and personal attributes.
  • Values Messaging: Throughout the program development, Augustana emphasized diversity and inclusion in their mission statement and external communications.
  • Personal Outreach: The admissions team conducted customized outreach and communications with each prospective student to address background-specific questions and build connections.

Opportunities to Improve

While pleased with the inaugural cohort diversity, Augustana recognizes the need to maintain momentum for future classes. Next steps include:

  • Sustaining Success: Augustana will focus on continuing strong diversity rates for subsequent cohorts through their proven strategies.
  • Expanding Reach: The program plans to foster more relationships with minority-serving colleges to broaden their connection to underrepresented student populations.

By starting with holistic admissions as a first principle and intentionally addressing barriers, Augustana cultivated an inclusive entering class. Their learnings can inform other programs seeking to enhance access and representation.

The Journey Beyond Admissions

In addition to holistic evaluation, Augustana acknowledges another crucial aspect: the necessity for robust student support and customized retention strategies. While the program excelled in recruiting and enrolling a diverse inaugural cohort, it is now equally focused on emphasizing student success during the academic journey.

Final Thoughts on Holistic Admissions

As we conclude our exploration of holistic admissions in graduate education, it’s clear that this approach is more than a trend—it’s a transformative shift in recognizing and nurturing potential. By prioritizing holistic evaluation, graduate programs are not just opening doors for a wider, more diverse range of candidates; they are actively shaping a future where academic success and professional excellence are defined by a mosaic of experiences and perspectives.

Augustana University’s case study is a testament to the power of intentional, inclusive admissions practices. By dismantling traditional barriers and embracing a broader view of candidate potential, Augustana has not only enriched its own community but has also set a benchmark for other institutions.

Looking ahead, the challenge for graduate programs nationwide is to take inspiration from such successes and apply these principles consistently. It’s about creating a ripple effect that transforms the landscape of graduate education. This means continuously evaluating and refining admissions practices, fostering environments where diversity is celebrated, and ensuring that every qualified candidate has a fair chance to excel. In doing so, we don’t just change how we select students; we change the very fabric of our educational institutions and ultimately the professions in which our students ultimately serve, grow and teach in.